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The ‘Canes Have Their Guy

By Jim Johnson
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Holy Turnover Chain. However, lost in all the madness, and “The U’ is backness, is the fact that Miami has now apparently found the lone missing link to an otherwise complete squad.

Holy Turnover Chain. Miami’s defense just forced six turnovers en route to a 47-10 victory over North Carolina in what was the iciest football game since Vince Lombardi’s Packers beat Tom Landry’s Cowboys to win the 1967 NFL Championship. The Canes’ defensive scoring alone would have been enough to best UNC tonight, as, prior to donning that blessed pendant, three different defenders found paydirt. For context, they scored more defensive touchdowns in that one game than they did the entirety of last season.

However, lost in all the madness, and “The U’ is backness, is the fact that Miami has now apparently found the lone missing link to an otherwise complete squad.

Redshirt freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry, in his first start, only threw 12 passes, but that was more than enough to see that, at worst, he will be a serviceable option going forward. Given his supporting cast, that too is plenty.

Sophomore running back, and all-purpose dynamo DeeJay Dallas is now gaining at least five yards on an almost unfathomable 66.7% of his carries, fresh off a career high 114 yards on just 11 carries, with a touchdown. It feels like a foregone conclusion at this point that he will, sooner rather than later, replace Travis Homer as RB1 and begin to garner a greater load of carries. This guy can make just about anyone miss if he wants to, it just seems like he usually doesn’t. His idea of fun seems to be punishing defensive backs in the open field, and he has a lot of fun. That’s not to say Homer will fade into the night, either. There’s not a team in a America that wouldn’t be in good shape with those two splitting carries. Meanwhile, freshman speedster Lorenzo Lingard didn’t even see the field versus the Tar Heels. There’s an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

Speaking of riches, entering the contest Jeff Thomas had arguably been the best receiver in the country to date, having compiled 315 yards on only 12 receptions, the highest per catch average in the FBS, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 wideout through week four. He was targeted but a single time, for a five yard grab in Perry’s debut. A pessimist could wonder if Perry could limit the incredible leap Thomas has made from year one to year two, but when he only throws twelve passes, no one’s really going to get a ton of looks. Especially when there are so many mouths to feed.

Freshman tight end Brevin Jordan has emerged as a force in the red zone. Lawrence Cager, an absolute physical specimen, can climb the ladder with anyone and is only second to Thomas on this team as far as game breaking ability. Mike Harley followed up a breakout performance against FIU with catches of 42 and 28 yards against North Carolina. Darrell Langham caught the lone touchdown of the night, and, still, all of those guys take a backseat to injured Ahmmon Richards, purely from a talent perspective, who, if he can get rid of that injury bug that has plagued him for going on two years, immediately vaults this offense up a tier.

Behind a steadily improving offensive line that has grown a lot since the loss to LSU, that entered the game ranked 22nd in standard down line yards, 59th in sack rate allowed, and 16th in stuffs allowed per carry, a quarterback was the only thing missing. That is no longer the case.

Plus, even if the defense isn’t scoring as many touchdowns for them as they did tonight, it’s not as if Miami needs to rack up points to rack up wins, as talented as they are on that side of the ball.

The secondary, even with a banged up Jaquan Johnson, is elite. Johnson is the total package when healthy, as effective a run stopper as he is dropping back into a more traditional safety role. Michael Jackson is the definition of a lockdown corner. Trajan Bandy is still developing discipline at the other corner spot, but he has continued to build on what was a stellar freshman campaign. And from a ball skills perspective, Sheldrick Redwine might have them all beat.

Similar to the secondary, the linebacking corps is also as good as advertised. There’s not as much depth here as there is with all of the young defensive back talent that Mark Richt and Manny Diaz have signed in the last two recruiting classes, but, barring injury, it’s probably the best in the ACC.

That was all expected, though. The big question coming into the season was, outside of Joe Jackson, would the defensive line play take a big step back. It was easy to look at the two aforementioned groups and conclude that it wouldn’t be a big deal if so, but it’s important to appreciate how symbiotic Diaz’s group truly was. Sure, it was mostly DB’s rocking the chain in 2017, but it often went unnoticed that it wasn’t just good fortune on behalf of Miami that led to so many of those big plays. Rather, they put themselves in a position to force those errors because of a complementary, upper echelon pass rush. The LSU game did little to assuage those concerns, and reinforced them if anything.

Jackson has been about what everyone thought, tallying two forced fumbles, a sack, and pick-six against UNC. Yet, the departures of Chad Thomas, RJ McIntosh, Trent Harris, and Kendrick Norton have actually spawned a new group of havoc wreckers to begin to establish themselves. Opposite Jackson, on the other edge, Jonathan Garvin entered the game with 8.5 tackles for loss, 10 run stuffs, and team leading -34.1% marginal efficiency allowed. In fact, the only guy teammate he trailed in the former two metrics was Gerald Willis. A bonafide star in the making, Willis is also proving to be one of the elite interior pass rushers in the game, with PFF’s eighth highest pass rush grade, totaling two sacks, to QB hits, and eight hurries through the first four weeks of the season. This was really the first game of the season that Willis didn’t dominate, but Garvin did continue his playmaking ways, finishing with a tackle for loss and two fumble recoveries.

Granted, the special teams, outside of the return game, has some work to do going forward, but Miami has now solved it’s biggest problem. Their most glaring hole filled, there’s not a team left on the schedule that can handle the Canes’ A-game.

It was fun for a few weeks, after that opening weekend loss, to pretend like the ACC Coastal was anyone but Miami’s to win. Now, it’s time for all that to stop. Even with that loss, Miami’s outlook has been completely unaffected, beyond having a little less room to maneuver.

In fairness, that last part could be of some cause for concern. There’s always going to be some inconsistency with any first year starter behind center -- inconsistency that Richt’s team can no longer afford. Then again, as is abundantly clear looking at the rest of the roster, it’s not as if Perry will have to go out and win games by himself. This team is plenty good enough to go out and beat teams throwing the ball twelve times a game, if necessary, at least in the regular season.

Clemson, in the ACC Championship, is a different story, but that was always going to be the final obstacle in pursuit of a playoff bid. At least it would have been had Miami gotten to that to point. The QB situation settled, it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that they will now. And who knows what sort of development Perry will undergo in the seven games between now and then.

Goals intact, the right man taking the snaps, and a two-deep that stacks up to just about any team in the country, Miami is exactly where it wants to be.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP